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Eating Disorders on the Rise with College Kids: Winter Break a Good Time to Connect

Posted: Dec 27, 2012 11:00 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2012 12:09 AM

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Ahhh...winter break! It's a great time to reconnect as a family, and for many it means that your college kid came home for break. While it's exciting to see your college-aged child (you may have not seen them since the beginning of the semester), it also means you need to be aware of changes in your child that might be unhealthy. The real tip-off to an eating disorder isn't their appearance, but rather mood and habits reports USA Today.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 25% of college students have eating disorders. The same percent of college women report managing weight by binging and purging, says the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

The problem's more widespread among women, but men aren't immune. The association says 10% to 15% of anorexics and bulimics are male.

USA Today spoke with Katie McInnis, 32, of College Students with Eating Problem. She had an 8-year battle with anorexia beginning at age 15.

"You can pick them out," says McInnis, "I gravitated toward them. It's almost this silent club."

McInnis was a cheerleader who ran track, and once during training, somebody commented about her "huge thighs." She hid her condition, running the shower to mask the sound of her vomiting and lying to her mother abut meals.

Though McInnis' anorexia began in high school, the average age for the onset of anorexia and bulimia is between 18 and 20, depending on the study - just as teens begin college.

Broach subject carefully

Counselors describe many signs of an eating disorder:

  • Is the student depressed, anxious?
  • Is he isolating himself?
  • Does she seem obsessed with her appearance, size or food?
  • Does he avoid eating with people, perhaps saying, "I ate earlier?"
  • Is he scrutinizing food labels, counting calories?
  • Is she so dissatisfied by her appearance or clothes that she avoids social activities?
  • Is food disappearing?
  • Does she suddenly favor loose, baggy clothes?
  • Does she disappear after meals, particularly to the bathroom? (That's a sign of purging, either through induced vomiting or laxative abuse.)
  • Are there sudden problems with the home's plumbing?

Parents should discuss observations with their child, but this conversation is extraordinarily delicate. Some students may be eager to unburden themselves, but most are defensive. Even the most well-meaning questions can prompt denial or anger.

When to seek help

Regardless of how these chats go, parents can follow up by scheduling an appointment for their student with the family doctor. This can rule out any medical issues, such as thyroid problems. The parent can say the appointment's for a flu shot or physical, then warn the doctor in advance about eating-disorder worries.

If the student resists further treatment, parents should seek professional help. McInnis says the student needs some control, so give options: "Who do you trust to talk to about this?"

Who Can You Call for Help?

  • Your family doctor
  • An on-campus counselor/health center or housing director. While on-campus resources are widely available to students, it is up to your student to seek out help. They may not be able to share information with you as the parent (depending on what type of college your student attends), but having coming from Higher Education Administration, I would say that if you are worried about your child, reach out to the school and try to make the aware.
  • National Eating Disorders Association, helpline: 1-800-931-2237
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, helpline: 630-577-1330, email

Topics: eating disorders, college kids, college eating habits, winter break, behavioral changes, teens, my719moms

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